“Freeman House is a former commercial salmon fisher who has been involved with a community-based watershed restoration effort in northern California for more than 25 years. He is a co-founder of the Mattole Salmon Group and the Mattole Restoration Council. His book, Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species received the best nonfiction award from the San Francisco Bay Area Book Reviewers Association and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award for quality of prose. He lives with his family in northern California.”
That’s the biographical note for Freeman House on the Lannan Foundation website. We would add that earlier in his life, Freeman edited Innerspace, a mid-1960s independent press magazine for the nascent psychedelic community; presided over the marriage of Abbie and Anita Hoffman at Central Park on June 10, 1967; and was a member of both New York City’s Group Image and the San Francisco Diggers.
This is the first lecture in this series.
WILD HUMANITY: People and the Places That Make Them People
by Freeman House
Revised in November 2001 from a University of Montana Wilderness Lecture delivered in April 2001
Richard Manning writes in Inside Passage: A Journey Beyond Borders, “…people should cease drawing borders around nature and instead start placing boundaries on human behavior…we should begin behaving as if all places matter to us as much as wilderness. Because they do.” We have not only set wilderness apart from our everyday lives; we have also made a distinction between human life and the very concept of wildness. The effect of this questionable distinction is to put a most dangerous limitation on our potential for adaptive human behavior. As Manning continues, both our parks and our culture set “a line between utility and beauty, sacred and profane. This line is destroying us, as it is destroying the planet.”
A few months ago I heard Florence Krall summarize her late husband Paul Shepard’s life work in a single sentence: There is an indigenous person waiting to be released in each of us. Our genome is “the sum of an individual’s genetic material, a product of millions of years of evolution” (Shepard 1998). The human genome is as wild as the ecological systems out of which it evolved. Basic comfort as a human being requires a conscious interaction with the more-than-human aspects of the textures of life surrounding, just as an infant needs the touch of other humans to thrive. Wild animals can survive for a while in a zoo. Contemporary humans are trained for survival in the zoo of an abstracted, objectified, and commodified world.
The genome demands, writes Shepard, that our cultures constitute a full and rewarding mediation between ourselves and the ecosystems within which we live. By this tenet, our genome, the structure within which our rational processes are embedded, is requiring of us that we recover our niches in particular ecosystems. Strong and mysterious language: the genome demands. It suggests that we are impelled to engage the health of our watersheds and ecosystems as a first step in our search for sanity—for ourselves, for our communities, and for our species.
The title of this series is the poetics of wilderness, but I’d rather be talking about the poetics of the wild. Because it’s among my assumptions that “wilderness” is a social and political construct, while the word “wild” is best used to describe the essential organizational structure of Creation; that Creation is a wild unfolding; and that we humans (as well as all our co-evolved life forms) are both expressions and agents of that unfolding.
Given these premises, it is quite possible that the self-satisfied technological advances of the last 500 to 5000 years of so-called civilization may not represent the pinnacle of evolution we encourage ourselves to believe they are. Continue reading